Primark fire: Karen Bradley meets businesses at city hall

The Northern Ireland secretary has met businesses in Belfast city centre that have suffered as a result of the Primark fire.

Karen Bradley had talks with the traders who have been affected by the blaze, which engulfed the Bank Buildings in late August and took days to extinguish entirely.

Karen Bradley (right) and Belfast Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey talk to the media after the City Hall meeting

Karen Bradley (right) and Belfast Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey talk to the media after the City Hall meeting

The building, which housed Primark, has been surrounded by a safety cordon ever since, for fear that it might collapse.

The restriction is said to be behind a 30% drop in footfall in the city centre and left 14 businesses unable to trade.

Days after Mrs Bradley’s Cabinet colleague, Chancellor Philip Hammond, allocated £2 million to help regenerate the city after the blaze, she met the traders at City Hall yesterday morning.

“I have been struck by the impact on Belfast city centre by the fire, it was a tragedy,” she said.

“It is an act of God, there’s nothing that anyone could do about it, but the consequences of it have been devastating for businesses. I have been hearing from businesses just now, I heard from businesses earlier in the year.

“I am really pleased that the chancellor has put forward £2 million in the Budget which is for in-year spending, that is in addition to the money that the council has committed, in addition to the money that Primark themselves has committed and it has to be spent by the end of March, so this is for immediate spending.”

Among those present yesterday morning was the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, Deirdre Hargey, who told the News Letter: “It was welcome in terms of getting Karen Bradley in just to hear the views and concerns.

“We had a mixture of business representatives there, from the different organisations from the Chamber of Commerce, and we also had some of the businesses directly affected who are closed inside the cordon.

“So obviously there was a level of frustration that she heard from those businesses in terms of their very survival as a business and that money isn’t flowing quickly enough. Whilst the £2 million is welcomed it falls short in what we needed as this critical time.”

Ms Hargey added: “We envisage pedestrian access from Donegall Place to Royal Avenue will be opened and it will be a tunnel that will be constructed for the start of December.”

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, was also at yesterday’s meeting. “I think it was very useful,” he said.

“I think with the £2 million that we’ve got, we need to see that spent urgently.”

The regeneration process had been “hampered by not having ministers in place in Stormont,” he said, shortly after Ms Bradley left City Hall for political talks at Stormont.

Last week, Primark was granted permission by the city council’s planning committee to commence work on Bank Buildings.

That work has now started.

Earlier in October, the council announced a £1.69million package to attract people into the city centre.

It included a ski slope, Ferris wheel and mini festival.

Speaking after the meeting with Mrs Bradley, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhan Connolly said it is currently “make or break” time for traders.

“It was good to hear some genuine concern for Belfast city centre and the traders affected by the Primark fire from the secretary of state,” he said.

“Though the £2 million is less than we expected or indeed needed, it is a good start on what will be a long journey back for the city.”

Councillor Michael Long, the Alliance Party group leader, said: “Well I think that it was positive that we had the work in terms of money coming from Westminster, I think we’ve been particularly pushing hard for that for the last few weeks.”

Ms Bradley also highlighted the £350 million allocated to the Belfast region city deal.